Igniting the Conversation: January is firefighter cancer awareness month

The importance of raising awareness of occupational cancer in the fire service
Part one of the series, Igniting the Conversation. The importance of raising awareness of occupational cancer in the fire service
Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 7:09 PM EST
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - Starting a new series Igniting the Conversation: The cost of firefighting, WTAP takes a closer look at January being designated as Firefighter Cancer awareness month.

As more studies are being done, it’s been found that the most prevalent danger facing firefighters isn’t running into a burning building, but a more silent killer- cancer.

Joe Schumacher is the C.O.O. of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FFCSN) and three-time cancer survivor.

Schumacher says 469 names were added to the memorial wall for firefighters lost in the line of duty in 2022. He says 75% of those were from occupational cancer, that’s 348 lives lost and names added.

In this three-part series, WTAP will be looking at these statistics, the types of exposures, steps being done currently to better protect firefighters, and what’s being done at the legislative level.

WTAP reached out to local volunteer and career fighters, the president of the local chapter of the International Association of firefighters, and the COO of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network to discuss the topic.

“A lot of people think it’s, you know we go into a structure fire or dangerous situations, which we do, but that is not what is killing us the most. By far and away it’s occupational cancer,” Joe Schumacher, FFCSN Chief Operations Officer.

Firefighter groups say that occupational cancer is the number one killer facing them.

That lead to the creation of Firefighter cancer prevention month in 2018.

“And I think cancer awareness month brings information to the public but it also reminds us to take the proper precautions that we need to do to protect ourselves… such as washing our gear,” said Lieutenant Brandon Brown.

Schumacher added, “Hopefully before a firefighter would ever get cancer [FFCSN] also provide awareness and education training on how they can reduce their chances of getting occupational cancer.”

Lt Brown has been in the fire service for 23 years and is the president of the local International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) chapter.

He says the organization has found that firefighters have an increased risk of cancer,

“Cancer’s real and it affects everybody but now we’re finding out that we’re just a little bit more susceptible to specific types and it’s just a way of life and anything that we can do to protect ourselves and not only that but protect our families.”

The IAFF says that about 40% of the population has the chance of getting cancer during their lifetime, but that number is higher with firefighters.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters have a 9% greater chance of getting occupational cancer and a 14 % greater chance of dying from it.

“....And that’s due to the increased exposure to carcinogens that we unfortunately as part of our job or profession, we’re exposed to,” explained Schumacher.

The FFCSN is active in 44 states.

Schumacher said the mission of the organization is to take care of firefighters and their families affected by occupational cancer, and they do this in two ways.

The first is what they call a “toolbox.” Schumacher explained this as, full of resources to help the firefighters stay organized during their battle.”

He went on to say it’s designed to take the firefighter or their family member from diagnosis all the way, hopefully, through remission.

The second thing the FFCSN offers what Schumacher called badge to badge support, or mentors. “So we have over 200 mentors in the network. And they are all firefighters, or their spouses, that have had cancer and they beat it,” Schumacher says.

Parkersburg Fire Chief Jason Matthews says all fire fighters in the city have the resources they need to stay educated about the risks.

“There’s always something we can learn. So always stay open minded and learn.”

Vienna Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Scholl and Lt. Brown say the month of awareness is about letting the public know the hidden dangers of the job.

“It all kinda comes back to public safety and we’re out here everyday trying to protect the public. And if the public’s aware of some of the risks that we are more exposed to and more susceptible to more specific types of cancers, then I think that’s part of the cancer awareness month and just bringing everything to light,” said Lt. Brown.

“Hopefully it will make them know that what we do is dangerous. That we can go out there and like I said, you don’t see the problem now you see it later,” said Scholl.

For the firefighters, every month is awareness month. Chief Matthews and Chief Scholl say they do their practices to help prevent cancer throughout the whole year.

Even with the seen and unseen risks of the job, these firefighters say they’re always ready to answer the call.

WTAP asked why they continue to do this job knowing the dangers. Every firefighter who answered said it was because they loved the job.

“Somebody has to... I grew up around fire service since I was just a child. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Chief Scholl.

“It’s the best job in the whole world. And I think that almost any firefighter or EMS provider that you ask would say that. I’ve done 30 years in the fire service and if I could do it again I’d do it again tomorrow,” said Schumacher

“And I just think it’s what I’m meant to do. So I don’t think that anything would have changed that,” said Lt. Brown.

In part one, WTAP looked at the increased risk firefighters face of getting and dying from occupational cancer and the importance of raising awareness on this issue.

But what are all the ways these heroes are being exposed? And what are some of the actions being taken now to better protect them.

WTAP explores the answers to those question in Part Two.

Part Three looks at the specific cancers and what is being done at the legislative level.